Why Do Some Theologians Get Marginalized and Others Don’t?

You might be getting tired by now of me talking about Barth, sorry. I have been having his repeating theologiansthought hit me though in regard to Karl Barth and his seeming repudiation by so many so called and self-professing “conservative” theologians (even and mostly the young ones). It really doesn’t make a lot of sense to me; my attraction to Barth notwithstanding. I am not as one-note of a reader/thinker as you probably think that I am. I never would have even been open to Thomas Torrance’s and Karl Barth’s respective theologies if not for my training in Historical Theology. I came to finally appreciate Systematic theology and its importance through Historical Theology; not that I didn’t enjoy Systematic Theology previously, it is just that all I knew of it (before being introduced to Historical Theology) was Charles Ryrie, Millard Erickson, Wayne Grudem, et al. I digress.

This is going to be a streaming post (just so you know). But I simply want to say something, simply. As I have read broadly in historical theology I have come to realize that all that I am reading falls into the category of theologoumena (theological opinions from the theologians). There are some theologians who fit better with what is considered the Tradition of the church, and others who veer. And this is where my confusion about Barth comes in. Each and every theologian I have ever read or been exposed to one way or the other has been a product of their times; they have been conditioned by the intellectual and socio-political categories available to them in their time (the New Testament itself reflects this reality). So how is that just because someone like Karl Barth who happened to be born in Modern times, in Modern Switzerland and Germany, coming to prominence in World Wars I & II, gets marginalized for his theology (by the young conservatives and the old ones too), but other theologians doing the same type of constructive Dogmatic theology as Barth, who were born in medieval and early and post-Reformed times get the stamp of approval? Barth was simply attempting to engage with the Tradition just as much as those accidentally born in other times. What makes one period, or multiple periods of time in history more special, closer to God as it were, than others, in particular Barth’s and the Modern’s time? Has God come close in one age, in two or three periods of history, and abandoned us now?

I am sincerely confused by this double standard! It seems absurd, self-serving, and trendy (to bash theology done in Modern times just because it has been done in Modern times). I am open to learn from all periods of Church History; I am not sure what it is about Barth in particular that people find so different than what other theologians have done. When Barth speaks he doesn’t speak Gospel truth (as he would say too), just as Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Anselm, Vermigli, Calvin, Luther, et al. do not speak Gospel truth.

People who marginalize Barth simply because he only recently died (relatively speaking), and not a long time ago are being facile.

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12 comments

  1. the Modern era is still too close (still with us), and we are too sensitive to some of its particular weaknesses. we don’t have enough conceptual distance to evaluate a “modern” theologian without instinctively reacting. the theological weaknesses that plagued the medievals or the patristics or even the reformers don’t feel immediately threatening to us, so we can evaluate them a bit more levelheadedly (we think). Barth is too close for comfort. the ways that he challenged (exploded) modernism feel directly challenging to us because of our own incipient modernism.

    it’s hard to distance yourself from yourself.

    it’s hard to be charitable.

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  2. Every theologian needs to be read with an eye to the time period in which he/she lived. Theologians are in constant dialogue with other theologians. Why are some theologians considered “timeless” while others like Barth are dismissed as WWII theologians? Barth was in constant dialogue with some very important theologians of the Second Vatican Council. I think it is a problem when St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Augustine are seen as “timeless” because we miss a lot when we read their polemical works without understanding the contexts in which they were writing. Scholars since the Luther Renaissance have discovered that a knowledge of Biel and Cajetan is important for understanding Luther’s reforms. For example, it is almost an accepted fact that Luther didn’t really know the Summa except through his 16th century interpreters. I’m always struck by the similarity between St. Thomas’ theory of election and Luther’s.

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  3. The reformed community does this with music as well. In fact, it may be a helpful leap to make to bring better clarity to the theological side. The farther music is from modern culture the more untainted from that culture it appears to be, but it only appears this way because we are so far removed from the past we miss the cultural relevance certain older styles of writing and particular usages of music (bar tunes for hymns) were aiming at. So the reformed context, in all regards, is not necessarily Biblical but merely traditional. Traditions feel unstained from the world and that is their allure, but in the end they are nothing more than personal preferences made absolute by a weak conscience. So, in regards to music, all churches have an extra-biblical culture, whether you’re singing from hymnals and using an organ or have a rock band leading worship … so for the sake of the gospel you might as well make it a revenant culture.

    Making the leap to theology, there is an illusion in the safety of distance in time, we are outside of their historical context and so we have no experiential context for the controversy their theology would have had to the “reformed” of their day. And the longer tradition continues without question or variation the more it becomes dogma until any challenge to it is a liberal intrusion .

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  4. Bobby, I can’t read this post or the comments with this new format – any ideas why? Please send and answer via email. Thanks.

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  5. @dtkleven,

    Yes, I think this is part of it. But I also think there must be something else going on as well. Maybe a conflation of these various theologians with the Gospel itself, to the point that any disagreement with their reading of things–through their theologians–is not just a challenge to their theologians, but to the Gospel itself.

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  6. @Fariba,

    Thank you. I think what Luther knew of Aquinas might be somewhat controversial (esp in re to the Summa). But he directed his ire at Aristotle directly with his Nichomachean Ethics and the theo-anthropology that was present therein.

    But yes, I agree, we need to be sensitive to each theologian’s context in order to appreciate and here them for all their relative worth!

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  7. @Bill,

    That is an interesting way into this (i.e. church music), and I agree that there are parallels between theology and music. I think my response to dtkleven touches upon what you were getting at as well. Protestants have a hard time recognizing the role of tradition in their approach to Scripture, and so it is hard to see how some of the more prominent classical Western theologians get conflated with their interpretation of Scripture. But my thoughts were really more in line with folks who are doing theology all of the time, even they privilege the classical theologians, for example, over and against someone like Barth. And yes, there must be some sort of Golden Age fallacy funding some of this, but of course people have become comfortable, as you note, with tradition that is considered safe and orthodox (which I find in some ways to be a very ad hoc way of thinking about things). I mean who are the theologians and doctors of the church, but teachers for the church.

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  8. I learned a lot reading a number of books by T.F.Torrance. I just recently bought the Church Dogmatics, and have slowly begun to read that massive work.

    Not too long ago I began reading Moltmann. I started with Theology of Hope, Crucified God, The Coming of God, and am now reading The Spirit of Life. He has definitely become my favorite theologian. I asked you a while ago if you had read him. You said you had not. I hope you give him a shot. I’m almost sure you will not like him as much as Barth and Torrance, but will no doubt profit in many ways. I don’t think he’s someone you need to read, but I do think you’d be better off having read him than having not;)

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  9. Juan,

    I have read a bit of Moltmann. I just have problems with what may be termed his ‘death of God’ theology and his pantheism when it comes to a doctrine of God. But I know he still has some good insights.

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